Just like a meter is a unit of length, or a minute is a unit of time, a calorie is a unit of energy.
The technical definition of a calorie is the amount of energy required to heat one gram of water by one degree °C. That’s a really, really, really small amount of energy. What we think of as calories related to food energy are actually kilocalories, or kcal for short, and is the amount of energy required to heat one kilogram (2.2 pounds) of water by one degree °C.
There is such a lot of weight (no pun intended!) behind such an innocuous little unit of energy.
Historically the calorie content of food was determined by placing the food in a sealed metal container which was then submerged in water, burning the food, and measuring how much the water temperature rose by. That’s a highly simplified explanation of a device called a bomb calorimeter, but I think it’ll do for our purposes.
I’ve been thinking about calories a lot lately, for a couple of reasons.
First, because one of the things I’m doing in my new life as a freelance nutrition consultant is working with a startup that provides recipes and meal plans within an app, and, unlike the meal plans I typically provide to my clients, these one are revolving around calorie counts. The founder of this company asked me what software I prefer to use for calorie calculations, and I was like, ummm, I don’t?
Don’t get me wrong, I know how to use this type of nutrition software, and I think there is value in it, but I haven’t used it since I finished my masters degree. It’s just now how I roll.
I pitched the idea of adding a profile to this program that eschews calorie counts for a whole foods approach – successfully, I might add. Still, when we discussed this option he told me that in his years of experience as a nutritionist – and he was sure my experience was the same – the only way that people consistently see “results” is by sticking to meal plans within preset calorie limits.
Here’s the thing: his definition of results is based on weight loss, weight maintenance, and athletic performance, whereas my definition of results is based on overall health status, satisfaction, sustainability, and happiness. I don’t think that either approach is right or wrong, and nor do I think that one approach or the other is right for every person.
In a way, it’s nice to be working together, coming from different schools of thought when it comes to nutrition. For me this a good challenge professionally, and I hope, too, that I can soften the edges of his perspective a little bit.
I’ve been a calorie counter at a few different periods of my life, and it is likely that because I did count calories and weigh and measure my food as I learned what healthy (for me) portions looked like, enough memory remains that I no longer need to. I’m also much more in tune with my body and attentive to satiety cues than I was when I began my healthy eating journey.
So, do I believe that counting calories works well for some individuals as a means to meet their health goals? Yes. Do I believe that counting calories is a necessary part of healthy eating? No.
For all of the years that this blog has existed, I have never provided calorie counts – or other nutrition information – for my recipes. If people asked for nutrition details I would direct them to one of the many online nutrition calculators and explain that I don’t provide this information because I prefer a whole foods approach.
Yet, it always nagged at me a bit, the idea that perhaps by not providing this information I was not properly serving my entire audience. What about those who need the information, such as diabetics who are watching their carbohydrate intake? Or those for whom nutrition facts are important for reasons they may not want to disclose?
With this in mind, recently when I upgraded to a more advanced recipe card, I opted for one that *does* include a nutrition label generator. You’ll now see this type of label at the end of all new recipes, and I’ll slowly go back and update the older ones, too.
These nutrition labels are generated using a large US database of ingredients. The app pulls them from the recipe, I verify that it has found the correct ingredient and amount, and then, like magic, with a click of a button the label is generated.
I should admit, too, that another impetus for adding nutrition labels is that their presence helps Google to understand when it’s looking at a recipe, and since Google is boss around here, it gets what it wants.
To be honest, I don’t think the nutrition labels are 100% accurate. I’ll try cross-referencing a few with the dietetic software I’ll be using for comparison’s sake, but I think you should view them as ballpark measurements only.
For those of you who find calorie counts and nutrition labels uninteresting, harmful, or triggering, I hope the fact that they come after the recipe will allow you to ignore them. For those who were looking for more detailed nutrition information, here it is.
In the above example you can see that a serving of the Red Curry Coconut Stir-Fry provides approximately 343 calories. It’s also loaded (LOADED!) with vegetables and tofu, providing vitamins, minerals, dietary fiber, and plant-based protein. A half-cup serving of chocolate peanut butter Häagen-Dazs is also approximately 340 calories. So, same calorie count, totally different thing.
In the context of a whole food, which contains other macronutrients (protein and fat) as well as dietary fiber, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytonutrients, the amount of energy that food provides – the calories – becomes relative to the other benefits. In the context of something like candy or alcohol, which provide a lot of calories without the nutritional tradeoff (the emotional tradeoff is a whole other can of worms), the equation changes.
So, at the end of the day, what do these calorie counts really tell you?
To be concise, they provide information about the amount of energy you can expect to get from the food. Having said that, let’s keep in mind that nutrition does not start and stop with calories; the picture is much bigger, and much more complex than that.
What do you think? Are you a calorie counter or do you prefer another approach? Do you think these nutrition labels are a benefit or a drawback? I’d love to know!
Join the Muffin Myth community and get a free 5-day meal plan!